If you've read the Radical for any length of time, you know that my thinking is often pushed by Dean Shareski — a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
What I love about Dean's posts is that they're a perfect mix of practical and provocative ideas. He's just as likely to challenge my instruction as he is to challenge my thinking — and that's cool.
A few weeks ago, Dean wrote about the role that self-assessment plays in the university classes that he teaches.
His central premise was one that struck home: Traditional grading practices centered around teachers collecting student papers and giving letter grades with little real feedback — the kind of practices that are uncomfortably common in my classroom — are failing our students.
Near the end, he issued a challenge:
"So I'm wondering if you're ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them? If not, is it about trust? Is it about readiness? Fear?
I'm thinking that even 6 year olds should be able to assess themselves. If we give them the tools and expectations."
I decided to take Dean's challenge to heart this week, giving my students the chance to assess themselves on two assignments that were due.
"There won't be ANY grade attached to these tasks," I explained. "Instead, you are going to evaluate yourselves. Then, you will get feedback from me on the first assignment and a peer on the second assignment."
I gave students handouts designed to guide their thinking as they evaluated their own performance. Both of the handouts included a series of structured questions that forced kids to look closely at the kind of criteria that define accomplished performance.
Check them out here:
Then I turned the kids loose. I gave them about 7 minutes to fill out each column on the self-assessment handouts we were working with. Combined with a bit of introduction to each of the questions, self-assessing each task took about 40-45 minutes worth of class time.
I learned a TON about student self-assessment during my experiment. Here are a few of my favorite lessons:
The VAST majority of my kids reported NEVER taking the time to systematically assess their own work in ANY subject or ANY grade level before our classroom experiment.
I asked my kids when we started our self-assessments how often they spent time evaluating the quality of their work before they turned it in. Most reported that they NEVER self-assessed simply because they (1). didn't have time for self-assessment, (2). didn't really think that self-assessment was important or (3). weren't really sure what "self-assessment" looked like in action.
That was a shocker to me because I just assumed that EVERY kid carefully looked at their work before turning it in. After all, that's the kind of thing that accomplished learners do naturally, right?
Here's the thing: Our kids AREN'T accomplished learners yet. We need to teach them how to evaluate the quality of their own work in the same way that we need to teach them how to complete equations or write solid paragraphs.
The VAST majority of my kids gave themselves accurate feedback when assessing their own work.
In my skeptical moments over the past week, I assumed that my kids weren't going to have the skills to rate their own work reliably. After all, what do THEY know about quality work, right? They're ONLY 12 — and I have a degree.
In my REALLY skeptical moments over the past week, I assumed that my kids wouldn't even be HONEST with themselves when they were assessing their own work. After all, would YOU tell the truth about crappy work if YOU were 12?
The good news is that my kids proved me wrong. Not only were they honest when assessing their own work, the feedback that they gave to themselves — the strengths and weaknesses that they identified and the suggestions for improvement that they offered — was AT LEAST as good as the feedback that I would have offered.
That probably means that I really CAN trust them to be evaluators of their own work — which MIGHT mean that I can spend less time killing myself to give them formal feedback on every task that I assign.
The VAST majority of my kids enjoyed giving and receiving feedback from their peers MORE than receiving feedback from me.
The difference between our first and second attempts at self-assessment was simple: After the first task, I collected student self-assessments and gave each student individual feedback myself. After the second task, students partnered with a peer and gave one another feedback.
When I asked my kids which approach they liked the best, they almost unanimously chose receiving feedback from their peers — and their reasoning was sound: They got MORE feedback from their peers AND they got that feedback immediately.
"You only wrote me two sentences, Mr. F" one of my favorite boys told me, "and it took you a WEEK to give me my paper back. That's not very helpful!"
And he's right: It DID take me over a week to get feedback to my students — and even after spending 8 hours of planning time on that task alone, I was only able to give each kid 2 or 3 sentences of feedback. That's what happens when you have 120 kids on your student load.
While relying on peer evaluation still seems sketchy to me — after all, the quality of feedback that a student receives is completely dependent on the quality of the peer that they are working with — I'm more confident than ever after seeing the kinds of feedback that students gave themselves that peer feedback can play at least SOME role in our classroom.
The VAST majority of my kids wanted to give themselves a number rating anyway.
One of the most interesting trends that I saw in the feedback that my students gave themselves was that they were CONSTANTLY slipping numbers into their self-assessment. Statements like, "I would rate my work a 3 out of 5," or "I would give myself an 80 for this" were sprinkled everywhere.
What's more, when we talked as a class about what my kids liked and disliked about self-assessment, more than a few students mentioned that the thing they liked the least was NOT having a final number to refer to. "I just want to know what I would have earned," they'd say.
For the amount of time that I spent on this activity, it was hard NOT to put something in the gradebook.
The fact of the matter is that no matter how much I believe in self-assessment, I STILL have to generate a numerical average for the kids in my class.
As a result, it's REALLY hard to spend the amount of time that I spent on this activity — 2 days of class time and about 8 hours of planning time responding to student feedback — WITHOUT adding something to my gradebook.
In the end, I was jazzed with our self-assessment experiment — and I'm sure that kind of work will continue to play a role in my classroom.
My students loved the fact that they could be honest with themselves about the quality of their work because they didn't need to worry about a grade. That carries value in and of itself for a guy who is sick of scores being more important than learning something new.
And I loved the fact that my students were the ones sweating the assessment. Formative assessment expert Dylan William argues time and again in his work that kids should be working harder than teachers in the assessment process.
That definitely happened in my room this week. My kids were genuinely engaged in evaluating their own performance against a set of clearly defined criteria — and that's cool.
Questions? Comments? Feedback? Suggestions?
Looking forward to hearing what you think.